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Options Slim, Older Job Seekers Try Starting Fresh

Jul 6, 2012
Originally published on July 10, 2012 4:46 pm

Deborah Klein sits in a parked car, a pile of envelopes on her lap. She's looking for work as a pharmacy technician, and has come to a faded strip mall near Waterbury, Conn., to drop off resumes with employers.

"I hope they get in touch with me, they want to meet with me, and who knows — they may have a position," Klein says. "It may not be now, but if I put something in their hand, they have something to think about."

Klein has her work cut out for her. Waterbury's unemployment rate is the highest in the state. And Klein has been unemployed for a while — her last full-time job, working for a software company, was in 2008. She's answered hundreds of job ads since being laid off, but has had little luck landing interviews.

At 62, one of Klein's obstacles may be her age. One of the few times she was called in for an interview, she sensed immediately that age would be a barrier.

"I walked in and I was the old lady of the place," Klein says. "I did not fit the demographic at all. The woman who was initially speaking to me was this little girl — I could almost have picked her up by the scruff of her neck. I mean, you knew I was not a fit."

Now, Klein's unemployment insurance has run out, she's burning through her 401(k) and she's even had to accept help from her two adult daughters.

Ultimately, Klein decided to retrain as a pharmacy technician, in the hope of broadening her employment options.

Starting Over At 62

Klein says her family thinks she's nuts, starting over at 62 in a field where she has no experience. But Klein, who has always liked science, graduated at the top of her class.

Still, the notion of starting over at 62 isn't as unusual as it once was. Sara Rix, a senior policy adviser with the AARP Public Policy Institute, says labor force participation among older workers has gone up.

There are many reasons for that, Rix says, including that people are living longer and want to stay active.

But financial necessity is also a factor, Rix says. A lot of older people simply can't afford to retire.

"The recession has had a devastating impact on individuals' financial well-being," Rix says. Recovering some of those losses by remaining in the labor force longer is "one of the few options over which they have some control."

People can apply for Social Security benefits as early as age 62. But opting into the program so early means their monthly payments will be lower later on. So, Rix says, older workers have to make a choice.

Staying Focused

For Klein, the choice was obvious. And she's gone about her job search the right way, says Stephen Romano of the Connecticut Department of Labor.

"She hasn't been scattered all over the place," Romano says. "She's focused on one mission. ... She's going to get a job interview pretty soon, if you want my opinion on it."

Back in the Waterbury parking lot, Klein approaches a drug store, looking professional in her blue dress and matching shoes.

She's in luck: The pharmacist agrees to see her. He tells her she has to apply online if she wants a job. He doesn't seem too encouraging.

But Klein is a positive person, and she's upbeat about the encounter.

"I thought he was charming. Nice man, and I think I might have ... got the feeling he would actually go in and look at my resume."

Working Free

Klein has also decided she can do even more to boost her employability. A few days after the drugstore pharmacy visit, she shows up at Griffin Hospital in nearby Derby, Conn. She's decided to volunteer.

"I'm trying to do ... as much as I can do to get into the field," Klein says. "If it means I need to get experience by working for free, I'll do it."

The hospital relies heavily on volunteers — and a lot of them are older than Klein. Tricia Brister, the volunteer coordinator, seems encouraging.

"Excellent, excellent," Brister tells Klein. "We're always looking for volunteers, and [we] have weekend hours too."

Klein likes the idea of coming here. Because it's not just about money, she says. She doesn't feel her age, and she still wants to work. She can't bear the thought of sitting at home watching TV all day.

"I'd rather be working," Klein says. "There's nothing better than getting up in the morning and going to work. I'm not ready to give that up."

And the years have taught Klein something: There are drugstores and hospitals everywhere. If she keeps knocking on doors she knows one of them will open eventually — even if the odds sometimes seem stacked against it.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

As we've been reporting, the government said today that the unemployment rate remains stuck at 8.2 percent in June, and 5.4 million Americans have now been unemployed for more than 27 weeks. People who've been out of work for a long time are often advised to go through some kind of job training. That could mean starting over in a new profession, which is especially hard for older workers. NPR's Jim Zarroli recently spent some time with a Connecticut woman who is trying to defy the odds by starting a new career at age 62.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Deborah Klein sits in a parked car with a pile of envelopes on her lap. She's looking for work as a pharmacy technician, and she's come to a strip mall near the old industrial city of Waterbury to drop off resumes with employers.

DEBORAH KLEIN: I hope they get in touch with me, they want to meet with me and who knows? They might have a position that comes up. It may not be now, but if I put something in their hand, they have something to think about.

ZARROLI: Klein crosses the parking lot to a drug store looking very professional in her blue dress and matching shoes. Today, she's in luck. The pharmacist agrees to see her. He tells her, if she wants a job, she has to apply online. He doesn't seem too encouraging, but Klein is a positive person, and later, she's upbeat about the encounter.

KLEIN: I thought he was charming, nice man and I think I might have - I'm hoping. I got the feeling that he would actually go in and look at my resume.

ZARROLI: Klein had her last full time job in 2008 when she worked for a software company. She's answered hundreds of job ads since then, but the unemployment rate in Waterbury is Connecticut's highest. She has a hearing loss and her age doesn't help. She talks about one of the few times she was ever called in for an interview.

KLEIN: I walked in and I was the old lady of the place. You knew I was not a fit.

ZARROLI: Now, her unemployment insurance has run out and she's burning through her 401K. She even had to accept help from her two grown daughters. Not long ago, Klein decided to retrain as a pharmacy tech. She'd always liked science. Klein says her family thinks she's nuts starting over at 62 in a field where she has no experience, but she graduated at the top of her class.

Stephen Romano of the Connecticut Labor Department says she's gone about her job search the right way.

STEPHEN ROMANO: She hasn't been kind of scattered all over the place. She's focused on one mission here and I think the longer she continues this and, you know, gets a couple interviews and I think she's going to get a job offer pretty soon if you want my opinion on it.

ZARROLI: The notion of starting over at 62 isn't as unusual as it once was. Sara Rix of the AARP Public Policy Institute says labor force participation among older workers has gone up. Rix says there are lots of reasons for that. People live longer. They want to stay active, but Rix says a lot of older people can't afford to retire.

SARA RIX: The recession has had a devastating impact on individuals' financial well-being and one of the few options over which they have some control is to remain in the labor force longer to recover some of the losses.

ZARROLI: Rix says people can apply for social security when they're 62, but opting into the program so early means their monthly payments will be lower later on, so they have to make a choice.

For Deborah Klein, the choice was obvious. A few days later, she shows up at Griffin Hospital in Derby. She's decided to volunteer in the hospital pharmacy.

KLEIN: What I'm trying to do is do as much as I can do, whatever I have to do to get into the field. If it means I need to get experience by working for free, I'll do it.

ZARROLI: Klein likes the idea of coming here because it's not just about money. She says she doesn't feel her age and she still wants to work. She can't bear the thought of sitting at home watching TV all day.

KLEIN: I'd rather be working. I mean, there's nothing better than getting up in the morning and going to work. I'm not ready to give that up.

ZARROLI: And the years have taught Klein something. There are drugstores and hospitals everywhere. If she keeps knocking on doors, she knows one of them will open eventually, even if the odds sometimes seem stacked against it.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.